This is the second part of our interview with Gene Luen Yang - be sure to read Part One.
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Gene Luen Yang is a Chinese-American graphic novelist whose books deal with themes of identity, belonging, and cultural expectations, and often use humour to deal with dark subjects and themes. He has won the Printz award and multiple Eisner awards, and if that's not reason enough to read his work, you also have my personal recommendation - it's great! Pick up American Born Chinese, The Eternal Smile, Prime Baby, Level Up, or Animal Crackers, then read this interview and his newest work, a two-part story called Boxers & Saints.
Q: You have drawn your own work and also worked with other great artists like Derek Kirk Kim and Thien Pham – what kind of process do you go through when writing a graphic novel on your own, and how does that change with a collaborative effort?
A: When you write and draw your own book, you’re in full control. Every line of dialog and every line of drawing comes from you. There’s something very satisfying about that.
When you work with someone else, you lose some of that control, but hopefully you’re trading that control for something more. My drawing style is pretty limited. I’m not that great of an illustrator. There are certain stories in my head that I simply wouldn’t be able to draw adequately. By working with another cartoonist, those stories get expressed more successfully.
Both Derek and Thien have brilliant, unique storytelling voices. They both do write and draw comics on their own. I learned a ton by working with them.
All that said, even the books that I do “on my own” are collaborations. Lark Pien colored both American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints. Her colors are an important part of the storytelling. I also got editorial input on both projects. I worked with designers at First Second, Danica Novgorodoff and Colleen AF Venable, to put the books together.
Q: As a librarian I sometimes have to defend graphic novels, usually to parents who think they aren’t “real” books; do you ever encounter that attitude, and how do you answer that criticism?
A: Yes, I’ve encountered that. My own parents thought like that when I was a kid. That attitude seems less and less prevalent these days. Parents seem to worry more about YouTube and the X-Box now.
I can understand where they’re coming from. I love prose too. I don’t want the prose novel to go away.
Words and pictures are often seen as competing forces, but it doesn’t have to be like that. One doesn’t have to lose for the other to win. Paul Levitz, former head guy at DC Comics, once told me about a study that found American comic book readers read six more prose novels per year than the average American. Comic book readers are readers, period. When you love one kind of book, you tend to love all kinds of books. Comics can support prose, and vice versa.
Q: Your books often deal with themes of identity, belonging, and cultural expectations, whether it’s fitting in as a minority (American Born Chinese), dealing with loneliness (Prime Baby), or balancing the lives we want with the lives our parents want for us (Level Up). Of course these issues are all very relevant to a YA audience – did you set out to write for teens, or did the stories you write just naturally fall there?
A: I started in the world of independent comics, which is very different from the book market. It’s changing now, but when I first started, people in comics didn’t think about age demographics all that much. I just tried to make comics that I would want to read.
After signing on with First Second Books, my comics were placed in the Young Adult category. I think I belong here. It feels right. I taught high school for a number of years. This seems to be the audience I most easily connect with.
Q: Apart from your own work, what books or authors would you recommend to a YA reader?
A: I mentioned Derek Kirk Kim already. He and Les McClaine are doing this great series called Tune. It’s sci-fi meets rom-com meets prison drama. It’s hysterically funny, but it’s also an insightful examination of the loneliness of the creative life.
For slightly younger readers, I’d recommend Ben Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl series. Gorgeous cartooning.
I recently read The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson. I really enjoyed it. I especially connected with it because I’m a cartoonist. I mean, chalk drawings that come to life, that can actually fight like Pokemon! What’s not to love?